Editing And The Writing Craft. Tips From An Editor

    Categories: Writing

OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn

This is a continuation of the editing Q&A with my fiction editor, Jen Blood, based on questions submitted to me in a recent survey.

You can read the first half of the interview here. It covers the different types of editing, how to find the right editor, price range and dealing with feedback. Here’s the second part.

How does the drafting, editing and rewriting cycle work?

In general, my advice to writers is to breeze through the first draft as quickly as possible. There may be times you’ll need to go back to rework sticky plot points or address other major structural issues, but the goal of the first draft should be to get the bones of your novel down on paper.

From there, there are several editing, revising, and rewriting cycles you’ll go through, ideally including beta readers, an editor, and a final proofreader in the process. Your ultimate goal is always forward movement—even if that forward movement can sometimes feel painfully slow. Every revised draft should feel a little bit better than the last, until eventually you have a complete, polished novel.

For a more complete analysis on the subject, read From Conception to Publication, my blog post breaking the writing, editing, and revision process down into ten unique stages.

How do I do structural revisions for fiction quickly and well?

I can write a certain number of new words per day–no problem! But I spend a lot of revision time staring out the window, wondering whether I’ve chosen the absolute best plot options.

First off, don’t just dismiss that time you’re staring out the window during the revision process—many times, that’s actually your subconscious mulling over what happens next. Of course, other times it’s just you staring out the window, so you do have to draw a line somewhere. When coaching writers through the revision process, I tell them to ask these questions about their novel.

(1)   What is the novel about? What is the plot, or central conflict?

First drafts tend to run incredibly long or incredibly short, but there’s rarely a middle ground. By clarifying in your own mind what you’re trying to say, you’ll be better able to edit your novel into a cohesive, saleable whole.

(2)   What are the secondary and tertiary plots?

Often, the secondary plot has to do with a romantic interest, but it may be another mystery, a subplot relating to the characters, etc. In one to two sentences, write down what the secondary plot is. In longer works of fiction, particularly sci-fi, there may tertiary plots, as well. Write down each plotline as succinctly as possible.

(3)   Where does the story begin?

This is key. Look at your central plot, and ask yourself when forward movement related to that plot actually begins. There’s a tendency to pack a lot of exposition into first drafts. Now is the time to start chipping away at that in order to determine how much is actually necessary, how it might be distributed more evenly, and how to convey that information in the least obtrusive manner possible.

(4)   How does each scene move the story forward?

Sit down and make a list of every scene in your book. What happens in each one? How does it relate to the book’s central, secondary, or tertiary plotlines? How long does each scene go on? Every scene in your novel, regardless of the genre, should be active and should move your story forward.

When you find yourself stumped during the self-editing phase, I’m a big believer in beta readers. If you have between one to three trusted betas, give them the manuscript with a brief rundown of your areas of concern. When they’ve completed the beta read, ask pointed questions about the issues bothering you. You can find more information on how to effectively utilize beta readers in this blog post.

The members of my critique group are trying to write our own books and/or short stories while learning the craft at the same time.

But every time we study something new, we feel that our previous works are wrong… so every week is like starting again.

What would you recommend to new authors about learning and writing at the same time?

As writers, we’re constantly learning new things about the craft. Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been scribbling for years, ideally you will always be growing as a writer. The downside to that is that you will invariably find things to improve in the work you’ve done. The key is to not let that stop you. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep writing. Finish what you start, and move on to the next project—it will inevitably be better than the last.

If you’re working with a group, set some guidelines: You’re allowed to revise a story two or three times, for example, before you send it out to an editor or submit it for publication somewhere. Once you’ve gotten some outside feedback, you can regroup and look at it again. The same goes for novels—don’t get caught up revising the same twenty to twenty-five pages your group has critiqued over and over again, ultimately neglecting the rest of the novel. Take the notes your group gives you, and move onto the next chunk of the book. Strive for greatness, but forget perfection. Finish your story. Let other people read it. Take their feedback, integrate the lessons you’ve learned, and revise accordingly. Then, move on.

How do I make sure my manuscript is ready for a professional editor? What are some tips for self-editing?

Excellent question. A good editor costs money, and the rougher your manuscript is, the more money they cost. It pays to submit a novel that’s been self-edited to the best of your ability. First off, I recommend picking up a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. It’s an excellent resource for writers at every level, and if you’re hoping to make a living one day at this whole writing business, it’s indispensable.

In terms of concrete advice I can give here and now, there are a few things you can do.

The three most common issues I see as an editor are:

(1) Structural issues like plot holes, wandering timelines, and lagging pacing,

(2) Excessive exposition or lengthy chunks of narrative (telling versus showing)

(3) Awkward, clunky writing.

So, how do you ensure that you’re not sending a manuscript filled with all of the above to your editor?

Structural issues can be tough to spot when you’re sitting in the middle of your manuscript, and you’ve been stuck there for months. Follow the steps outlined in question two of this post to help guide yourself through the editing process. Additionally, it’s a great idea to call on trusted beta readers who will provide a read-through and call attention to anything you missed along the way.

For exposition and lengthy chunks of narrative, one of the most helpful tricks I use is to simply eyeball a manuscript. Are there whole pages filled with long paragraphs, broken up by very little dialogue? That’s the first clue that a story is heavy on the telling and light on the showing. Think in terms of a movie. How would each chapter play out on screen? Do you need a narrator to lay the whole thing out with lots of unwieldy internal monologues, or do you have dynamic scenes with strong dialogue and a particular goal for each of your characters in every chapter?

Awkward writing is less easily defined, and only comes with experience. Again, rely on your beta readers, but at the end of the day, your editor should be someone you trust who can help you hone your skills and ensure that the novel you put out is the best it can possibly be. Remember: Your novel doesn’t have to be perfect before you send it to the editor. That’s what you’re paying them for!

How do I know when to stop editing and move into the publishing phase?

This, to me, is the number one reason to have a professional editor on your side. Trust me, your editor will tell you when it’s time to stop editing and just publish already. If you can’t afford someone for a full edit of your book, many editors—myself included—offer partial edits of the first twenty, thirty, or fifty pages at significantly less than it would cost to edit the full novel. Even a partial edit from a qualified professional should give you an idea whether or not you need to continue rewrites or you can realistically start planning for publication.

Here at The Creative Penn, Joanna has taken a stand against the term “self-publishing,” arguing that there are actually many, many people involved in the independent author’s journey. This is especially true at this phase of the writing game. In my opinion, there is no way you can judge on your own whether or not your book is ready to publish.

If you don’t have an editor, turn to beta readers, preferably three or four of them. Ask them: If they were buying this book on Amazon, how would they rate it? Did it keep their attention throughout? Were the characters interesting to them? Did the plot make sense? Was the quality of the writing equal to that of a well-reviewed published novel?

Thanks to Joanna for asking me to answer these excellent questions on the art (and business) of editing! For any author, editing is an integral part of the writing process. Whether you’re new to the craft or an old hand, the key to a successful edit is seeking help when it’s needed. Ask for feedback. Recruit beta readers. Join a writing group. Hire an editor. We writers are a mighty tribe these days—there’s no reason to walk the path alone!

 Do you have any questions or comments on editing? Please leave them below and join the conversation!

Bio: Jen Blood is the bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries, and owner of Adian Editing, where she offers comprehensive content and copy editing services of plot-driven fiction, as well as writing coaching and classes on writing and self-editing. She has worked as a freelance editor for Random House, Aspatore Books, Hyperink Press, Maine Authors Publishing, and individually for a long list of independent and traditionally published authors. Jen is currently accepting new clients, with a few spaces available through the end of summer and into the fall. Visit http://adianediting.com/ to learn more about her services, or contact her at jen@adianediting.com to schedule a $25 sample edit of your first chapter.

Contact Info:

Twitter: @jenblood
Facebook: http://facebook.com/jenblood1
Website: http://adianediting.com/

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons editing a paper from Nic McPhee

Joanna Penn :

View Comments (21)

  • An excellent article to which I will direct my fiction-writing clients! Having learnt a lot about what it's like being edited when writing my own books, I would add that, while it's not essential and not all editors are also writers, having an editor who also writes in the genre in which you're working can add an extra dimension to your work, as they will have a deeper understanding of what you're going through in the writing and editing process.

    • Absolutely agreed, Liz! My specialty is plot-driven fiction, and I feel pretty comfortable in most genres that fall within that fairly wide spectrum. I've spent most of my adult life studying the balance between pacing, plot, and character development in genre fiction, both as a writer and an editor, so it's a pleasure working with fellow writers as they walk that tenuous line. That knowledge definitely helps me understand where they're coming from, as well. Excellent point!

  • Perfect advice. The most important thing you said was that the writer never knows when it's ready.

    In some ways, it will never be ready. That is, the author will always find something that can be improved. There comes a point when you have to pull the trigger. Picasso said that no work of art is ever finished, it's simply abandoned. That's true. The question is only whether the thing abandoned is publishable. For that you need an expert.

    • Excellent point, Michael -- I agree wholeheartedly. There will always be niggling details, those tiny points we as writers can obsess over until the end of time. As you said, there comes a time when you just have to pull the trigger. It's nice to have someone standing behind you telling you your aim is true before you do so -- that's where the editor comes in. Very well said.

  • I would like to be an editor. What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into the editing business? I would like to see some blog postings on this subject too.

    • Hi Marcie, Great question that I see coming up more and more lately. There are a number of inexpensive online courses out there that you can take on proofreading and editing, and I highly recommend starting there. In general, those classes obviously aren't going to tell you everything you need to know, but they're a great way to get the basics down and get an overview of what it means to run an editing business. You can also check with editors in your area (or online) to find out whether they offer any kind of apprenticeship program, which is an excellent, hands on way of learning both the craft and the business side of things while still having a safety net before you go out on your own. Best of luck!

  • Great article! The trick is not to know when to start, but when to stop - when I finish a book I leave it for a couple of months and then attack it with a red pen: if the pen doesn't run out before I finish marking up the text then I haven't edited hard enough, but on the third or fourth go I try to resist any marks at all.

    Sometimes you've just got to let the thing go...and getting other 'voices' who know what they're doing to go at it for you is worth its weight in ink and headaches. Editors these days rarely have the time to edit as they once might have done...shame!


    • Agreed, Simon -- giving yourself and your manuscript time to breathe before you try self-editing is crucial! And you're absolutely right about editors not having the time they once did to edit before a book goes to press. That's where a qualified, professional freelancer proves invaluable. Speaking as an author myself, I know there's only so much I can see of my own work before I have to rely on someone else to spot the manuscript's weaknesses and tell me when the problems are finally hammered out enough to publish.

  • Great advice, but even when I try to edit my own stuff through the eyes of another, I still miss very obvious things... It's a shame

  • This article had plenty of great advice that I will be using. I'm a first time writer and I've self-edited my books many times but I'm still stuck in some places. I'd like to find fresh eyes to look over my pages but I don't know where to find beta readers.

  • Can anyone tell me how quick a professional editor should return the work to an author? Say, if an author sends 3,000 words or even half of that and pay for the editing of the whole manuscript, how often should she get the job done? Should an editor take two weeks to do a light editing? One day? Three weeks?

    • It will depend on the editor and you should discuss that in advance. I tend to book my editors 2 months in advance and give them warning of any delivery date change so they can plan, then when I deliver the manuscript, it will usually take 2-3 weeks to turn around a 60-70,000 word manuscript.

  • I found this very helpful. I am an experienced editor, but I'm talking with a first-time author about editing my first crime novel. He says the manuscript is 200,000 words, about as long as "Moby Dick." I think I'll pass along the many good self-editing points you've made here. My job will be easier, faster and less expensive if he can do some of the initial tightening.

  • I found this article very helpful. I'm only thirteen, and I doubt I will be publishing a book anytime soon, but I did write one and I'm having a little trouble editing it. For one, I'm not too great with showing instead of telling, and although I am getting better at it, it would be nice to get some tips on it.

    Also, every time I look at my book I see problems, a lot of them. They're not necessarily holes in the plot, just things that I think need changing, even if I have changed it before. It's like one minute I could like a scene in the book, and another I will think it's complete rubbish. So to sum it up, I'm always harshly criticizing my own work, to the point where I'm not even sure if it's good. Is this normal or does the book need a lot of work?

  • Thank you Joanna for this post. I've finished my rough draft and am stuck in the 'how the heck to I revise' stage. I appreciate that you mentioned to give yourself a little time and to be ok with staring out the window. I catch myself doing that and my mind is a million miles away wondering if my protagonist is really worthy of her story.

    I am seriously looking forward to finally being at the stage where the GIANT gaping holes are fixed and I can send my manuscript off to an editor for review. I've given myself some timeline goals for this year, but I'm worried I may not be able to drag my creation across those finish lines when I was planning to. I'll keep the goals for now, (I usually do better under pressure) and hope that my revision starts falling into place.

    PS. I did get "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" at your recommendation and have started to go through it to help polish my manuscript to the best of my abilities.

    As always, thanks for all your help, your creatives appreciate it!